Ruan L'Heureux was coming back from buying provisions in the Sime town of Hythren. The back of his wagon was filled with sacks of seed corn and boxes. In one corner, carefully wrapped, was a bolt of cloth for his wife, Marina. For his daughters there were three carefully tucked away sacks of candy. He was in his late twenties, a slender, well-knit Sime with a shock of light brown hair falling over a high forehead, grey-green eyes and a wide, generous mouth.
It was a bright spring day and he was humming cheerfully to himself as he lolled in the seat behind the steadily plodding team of horses. They had been traveling since before dawn and it was time to look for a place to stop. A break in the fields offered a pleasantly cool spot to rest. He turned his horses off the road and stopped them under newly leafed out trees, where a narrow line of woods flanked the twisting stream bed.
As he was jumping down from the high seat he saw a circle of fire-blackened stones ringing charred wood and ashes. Obviously, others before him had found this a good place. He walked to his horses, to ease the bits from their mouths and loosen the traces. His hands and tentacles stilled in their task. His head came up sharply as a faint but unmistakable trace of Gen nager titillated his senses. Carefully he zlinned the surrounding woods.
Interest died. The Gen was accompanied by a Sime. It was another man's kill. He pulled his interest away from the pair. What was going on in the woods was none of his business.
He thought he'd fix himself some tea. He was not particularly hungry but Marina insisted on regular meals and she could always tell when he lied. From the back of the wagon he pulled out a battered pan and went into the trees.
Crouched above the clear stream Ruan realized the Gen was coming straight for him and the other Sime was nowhere near. He was too close to ignore the creature. But he was not one to steal another's kill. On the other hand he did enjoy a good chase. Perhaps the Sime so foolish as to have lost his Gen, would like to have it returned to him.
Filled with pleasurable anticipation Ruan stood up as the Gen crashed out of the woods into the wide stream just a few yards from him. The Gen's bare foot slipped on the mossy rocks, wrenching his ankle and sending a wave of pain outward. Ruan winced at the shock, backed as it was by a high field. The creature hadn't seen him, stood in the water, one hand holding a convenient tree limb while the other massaged the pain away.
It was a male and absently Ruan zlinned him. At first touch of that nager he'd have said the male was a domestic Gen, but closer contact revealed the distinctive feel of the Pen. He was about seventeen and was probably a freshly sold breeding male. He was not drugged, hadn't been for months, in all likelihood. Ruan could see why . . . There was pain, distress, nervousness in that field but it was all surface. Under it, the Gen was calm, cool and controlled. With a nager like that he could manage to stay alive for a long time.
Ruan dropped back into duo-consciousness, for the first time really seeing the black, straggling hair hiding most of the creature's face. The Gen's arms, legs and feet were scratched and bleeding as if he had forced his way through brambles. The Gen's sole article of clothing, a filthy, grey tunic, was torn and hanging loosely off one thin shoulder.
Ruan scuffed one booted foot through a pile of last year's leaves. The Gen's head snapped towards him with a delicious shock of surprise. Now that the creature was facing him, Ruan could see three green tags dangling from the collar around the Gen's brown throat.
A shout from the woods behind them caused the Gen to nervously half turn, glancing over his shoulder. Ruan gasped slightly. The Gen's back was striped with blood. Ruan despised Simes who readied their kills in such a way. He made a sound of contempt deep in his throat, turned and strode back to the clearing. Let whoever owned the Gen catch him himself. He wasn't about to help.
Behind him the Gen whipped around at the sound of movement, ready to fight. He stood hesitantly watching the Sime's retreating back, puzzled and wary. Then he straightened up suddenly with the air of someone who has made an irrevocable decision, turned and limped after Ruan.
Busy building a fire, Ruan knew the Gen had resolved something, but was utterly unprepared to feel that smooth, enticing nager coming toward him instead of vanishing in the opposite direction. He looked up, startled.
Fearful, but determined, the unkempt Gen kept coming until he was only a couple of feet away. From behind a curtain of dirty, tangled hair, dark eyes went from Ruan's face to his arms as if the Gen could tell a Sime's need from the state of the laterals. Seeing Ruan nearly unmoved by his presence some of the steadiness seeped out of him, as if some hope was now gone.
Ruan, his mouth open, sat back on his heels in frank disbelief. Was this creature offering himself? If suicide was in his mind he had chosen the wrong Sime.
On the far side of the clearing a red-haired middle-aged Sime trotted out of the woods, slowed to a walk as he saw the two of them together.
The Gen looked around at the redhead, gave a small moan and collapsed to his knees on the short grass, head bowed, hopelessly defeated.
The newcomer was just past mid-cycle. He was short, with brindled red hair and a cruel slash for a mouth. As he came to stand over the kneeling Gen, he slapped the coiled whip he carried in one hand against his leg in an irritated manner. But his emotions were anything but irritated and they made Ruan cringe inwardly.
Ruan stood up and the redhead made a belated effort to curb his feelings as if he were finally aware of his lack of manners. Ruan clenched his hands bracing himself to endure the other's presence. He wanted to move away from the other man's field but shen it! it was his fire.
"So you found the scut for me," the redhead said in a deep, throaty voice. "Thanks for holding him. He's a devil for escaping." He tapped the Gen on the shoulder with the whip. "Get up!"
The Gen flinched away, but remained stubbornly where he was, head down, shoulders hunched in anticipation of a blow.
The redhead twisted his tentacles into the Gen's long hair and yanked his head back with a sharp, painful jerk and held him in that position. Sunlight and leaf shadow dappled that strained, upturned face. The Gen's dark eyes gazed impassively beyond them and his mouth was set in a stubborn line.
"Feel that nager," the redhead said. "Smooth as thistle down and as steady as an oak plank, no matter what you do to him. He's a real treasure. Why, would you believe it, I've had him for six months and never once has he pushed me into attacking him. Learns real quick, too. Don't you, scut?" He shook the Gen's head and let go of him.
"You've had him for over a year," Ruan said suddenly, having had a good opportunity to read the dates on the Gen's tags. "And you haven't paid the tax on him . . ."
"Oh? Is it going to be like that, is it?" Would you be wanting him for yourself?"
Ruan's lips curled, but he didn't answer.
The other man nodded, studying him. "He has been a bit of trouble has this scut. But he's had his uses too." He stroked his chin, studying Ruan. "He needs a strong master, this one. It might do him some good to find out how good he has it with me; might keep him from running away in the future." He nodded, his small eyes gleaming with baleful humor. "So you think you can kill this one, eh? Like to have the chance? I'm betting you come begging to me to take him back. And keeping up the taxes on him will be more than you bargained for. I'll let you steal him off me, boy. Just remember, when you want to get rid of him, I'll be waiting to get him back." He turned to walk away.
"I don't steal any man's kill," Ruan said stiffly, holding out a bag of coins. "I'm willing to pay you for him."
The redhead laughed as he snatched the sack from his hand. "You'll pay to get rid of him, too. When no one will take him from you . . . you will pay me to take him." He walked away laughing. "Paid twice and I'll still have the scut in the end!"
The Gen stirred, looked around at the retreating redhead with a sharp stab of satisfaction.
Ruan looked down at the Gen and his wide mouth shaped into a grim smile. The Gen had made a poor exchange in owners. He was a gift for Marina and therefore he'd be dead in two weeks.
Near dusk he stopped briefly at the Rale County Gen-Pen to get new tags for the Gen. Nella, the Pen-Dealer, peered into the wagon at Ruan's purchase and snorted in derision. "A nager like that is nothing but trouble. Keep him doped," she advised. She handed Ruan the necessary tags with no further interest and went back to her office.
It was dusk when he turned into his own lane. The windows in the house shown a dull yellow. A swath of light was flung across the porch as Marina opened the kitchen door and stepped out waving a greeting. "Girls, your father's home!" she called. His daughters came running from the barn where they were playing, screaming their delight at his arrival and demanding breathlessly to know what he had brought them from town.
"My dark haired beauties!" Ruan shouted, leaping down from the wagon seat to pick up four year old Annora and swing her high into the air while she squealed in pleasure; hugged six year old Spring to him, and bent down to give nine year old Shonneth a kiss.
"Daddy, who is that man?" Shonneth asked, pointing at the Gen who was peering wide-eyed at them from over the side of the wagon bed.
"He's a Gen. A field hand. I brought him to help me with the planting for a couple of weeks," Ruan lied easily.
Marina had joined them by now and she looked critically at the Gen. Too late Ruan remembered she tended to choose her kills for their looks.
("It's not like you to bring kills home so early, Ruan.") she said, speaking in the high-Simelan of the adults, which the children could not understand.
("I didn't have any choice. It was take him now or lose him. I bought him for you!")
Her field sparkled with pleasure. ("He's a marvelous gift! That nager is almost prime! Thank you, Ruan!") She put her arms around him.
"Momma's hugging Daddy," Spring chanted, while Annora giggled and Shonneth tried to shush her.
("But what are we going to tell the children?") Marina asked in concern.
("I already told them he was going to be with us just a couple of weeks. If we keep the girls away from him they won't hardly notice when he's not around anymore.")
Marina glanced at her eldest daughter who was studying the Gen soberly. ("I think Shonneth is beginning to suspect.")
Ruan shrugged. ("There's nothing we can do to keep them from finding out sooner or later.") He was lifting the sacks from the wagon as he spoke.
"But Momma, who is that man?" Shonneth repeated insistently as her mother shepherded them into the kitchen. Her two younger sisters fell silent listening intently for the answer.
"He's here to help your father."
"But . . ." and the door shut on the conversation, leaving Ruan and the Gen alone in the dark.
"Nella was right. You will be a problem," Ruan said to the Gen. "I'd like to know what you found so surprising about my girls."
The Gen, watching him impassively, reached out a thin brown hand and touched the staple to which his leg chain was fastened. He made a questioning sound. The first sound Ruan had heard from him.
"And here I thought you might be a mute. You want me to let you loose, eh?" He stepped over and undid the fetter on the Gen's ankle. "You'll run, but you've been chained there all afternoon. It won't hurt to let you stretch your legs for a while."
But when Ruan turned him loose, the Gen did not try to run. Instead he moved to help the Sime take the sacks out of the wagon. Amused at this un-Gennish industry, Ruan let him and discovered a strange contentment in working beside a high field Gen.
When they were finished, Ruan took the Gen to the washhouse, where Marina did her laundry. Set up to heat large amounts of water at one time, it frequently caught fire, so they built it apart from the main buildings. The water in the large tank was tepid, but Ruan didn't see any reason to heat it up. Pushing a bewildered Gen into the largest wash tub, he scrubbed the creature down.
When the Gen was clean and dry, Ruan searched around for a scissors to cut the Gen's hair. Automatically he took out a comb to smooth out the tangles and put those black locks into some kind of order, doing for the Gen what he'd done for his daughters countless times.
Putting a tentacle under the Gen's chin to lift his face up, he felt the scratch of bristles and wondered why the redhead had thought to keep the Gen shaven, but unwashed. Free of dirt, the Gen's face had clean, clear lines and the black luminous eyes, no longer hidden behind a greasy tangle of hair were . . . aware. He had never before looked into the face of a Gen who looked back, whose eyes were knowing and filled with a vast weariness. He forced down panic. This was a pen-raised breeding male under his tentacles . . . a Gen . . . not a child. Harshly he ordered the Gen to dress in a pair of his own denims and a faded checkered shirt.
When they came into the kitchen, Shonneth was setting the table for supper with Spring and Annora helping. Their childish voices fell instantly silent when they saw the Gen behind their father.
Hesitantly, the Gen entered the room, glanced once around the kitchen and then lowered his gaze to the floor.
"He looks much better, Marina said approvingly.
"Momma, Shonneth didn't put a place out for the man!" Spring said in concern.
("I will not have that creature eating at the table with us!") Marina said firmly.
"Fieldhands don't eat at the table," Ruan said a bit desperately. He pulled the Gen over to a corner beside the stove. "Sit down."
"What's his name, Daddy?" Shonneth asked with elaborate unconcern.
"Uh . . . Dunbren." Ruan answered, sitting down to pull off his boots.
Marina glanced from her husband to the Gen huddled into the corner, face hidden against updrawn knees. She ladled soup into a bowl. "Shonneth, take this to Dunbren, please. He's very hungry."
("Don't give him any dope,") Ruan said. ("I want him alert when I take him into the fields.")
Careful not to spill the soup, Shonneth brought the bowl to Dunbren. "Here, Dunbren." When he didn't move, she nudged him with a foot. He looked up then, saw the food and reached out eager hands.
Marina called everyone to the table. Conversation was lively as Ruan told them about his trip to Hythren.
"Dunbren don't hold his spoon right," Annora announced suddenly.
"We can't expect Gens to have proper table manners," Marina replied.
"Why not, Momma?" Shonneth asked instantly, breaking an unaccustomed silence.
"Yes, Momma, why not?" Spring chimed in. "Why shouldn't Dunbren have table manners? We do. And he's just like us."
Marina's shock slapped against Ruan's shock, sending confused multiple cold ripples through the ambient. "That will do," she said firmly. "Eat your dinner and no more chattering."
An instinctive answer and probably one she'd gotten from her own mother. Both of them knew it wasn't going to satisfy the children's curiosity. If anything her attitude had made Shonneth's suspicions worse. Attempting to head off any more such observations said, "Dunbren didn't grow up with a family around him like you have. He didn't have anyone to show him the right way to do things."
"You mean he's an orphan?" Shonneth asked.
"Er . . . yes." Ruan was grateful for the explanation Shonneth had so conveniently given him.
"Oh! Poor Dunbren!" Spring said instantly.
"Poor Dunbren," echoed Annora around a mouthful of bread.
"Are all orphans, Gen, Daddy?" Shonneth asked carefully, pushing her food around her plate with a fork in a way which made Ruan instantly wary.
"No. But all pen-raised Gens are likely to be orphans," Ruan said.
"Dunbren hasn't any Momma or Daddy," Spring was explaining to Annora.
"No Momma? No Daddy?" Annora's brown eyes got huge. "Oh, poor Dunbren! She picked up a slice of honey cake set aside for her dessert, slipped off her chair and going over to the Gen squatted down in front of him. "Here, Dunbren," she said, holding out her offering.
Dunbren looked apprehensively to Ruan until the Sime nodded to him. The Gen smiled shyly at Annora then, and let the little girl push the cake into his hand.
"Me too!" Spring declared in sudden jealousy and also brought her dessert to the bemused Gen. "Poor Dunbren," she said, patting him on the shoulder.
In the fields the next day Ruan talked to the Gen, much as he would have talked to a dog trotting at his heels. Because Shonneth was suspicious when the Gen didn't respond to his name he set himself to teaching Dunbren to come when called.
"That redhead was right about you being smart," Ruan said slowly at midday, after the Gen's responses had worked quickly through blank incomprehension, suspicion, to pleased pride whenever Ruan addressed him.
That night as he lay in bed beside Marina, she turned over and tickled him on the chest with her tentacles. "Something is bothering you.
"It's that Gen. All I did was teach him his name and be kind to him."
"Sometimes that's all it takes."
Ruan turned over on his stomach, plumped his pillow and burrowed his head into it. "He acts like I'm some kind of god. I don't like it."
"Oh, you do . . . but it makes you feel guilty," said Marina wisely.
Ruan didn't argue with her. She had always been better than he at reading nuances in fields. "Well, he'll only be around for a few more days."
"Uh . . . my love. I've been thinking. When such a thing happens, it is usually the Sime who is fixed on the Gen. I've never known a Gen to be fixed on a Sime. But since it has happened, Dunbren is yours."
Ruan went still, his field in conflict. She kissed the back of his neck. "A gift from me to you," she said lovingly, and curled up against him to sleep.
Dunbren watched the Kind Death-One from where he sat crossed-legged on the floor, in his corner. The Kind Death-One's woman, Marina served breakfast to the three girl children at the table and bustled with a forced cheerfulness around the bright, sunlit room.
Unconcerned, Dunbren noted she was very close to her Kill day and reminded himself to be extra careful around her. Death Ones were given to losing their tempers very quickly close to Kill day.
He held his bowl in one hand and slowly spooned the honeyed cereal into his mouth, savoring the sweet taste, the feeling of a full stomach and the sunlight. Enjoying the contrast, as he did every morning, between the cold, grey storeroom where he slept and this bright warmth. The Kind One let him eat and sit here in the mornings before work and again in the evenings when they finished in the fields.
Contentedly he looked around the kitchen. He had never, at any time in his life, been happier than he was right now. He was going to have a whole span of happiness. Days and days of being with his Kind One who made him feel good. Surely no other Gen had had a Death-One so kind. He smiled slightly, pleased with himself. He had chosen well that day when he ran away from the Bad-Death-One searching for a Death-One to kill him.
The Kind One sat down at the table. Marina snapped at him, and at the tone of her voice the girl children looked warily up at her and edged out the door. Ruan's lips tightened in anger, but he didn't say anything.
Dunbren considered. He liked Marina almost as much as he liked Ruan. She gave him food, enough so that every meal he was full. And she gave him the same food she gave the girl children; no scraps or bits going bad.
The Bad Death-One had taught him what to do to keep a Sime calm around Kill day. It was not without it's hazards. If he did it wrong he could get hurt.
He bolted the last few bites of his breakfast, got to his feet and slipped into place behind Marina, just within arm's reach. Staring at the floor he thought those thoughts that made a Sime feel good. The effect on these kind gods was so much more satisfying than it had ever been on the Bad Death-One. With him the best he had hoped for was not to be hit. But Ruan and Marina turned and stared at him in astonishment, as if they had never had a Gen do this for them before. Marina's face cleared like magic, all the anger gone. She handed him a piece of buttered toast, his favorite treat. But Ruan stared at him so long he thought perhaps he was doing something wrong and wish-thought a question at him. It would be so much easier to talk to the Death-One but that was forbidden. So he wish-thought. Sometimes the Death-Ones heard and sometimes they didn't. Ruan heard mostly. But often he did not quite understand. This time he understood because he said in Slow-Speech, the language he used with the children, "You're doing well, Dunbren." And that made him feel good. He ate his toast happily, careful not to let Marina see him wipe the butter off his chin with his sleeve. She was funny about things like that.
When Ruan made ready to go into the fields Dunbren joined him as usual. But this time the Kind-One said "No. Stay with Marina."
It was the god's will and he tried to make himself obey, but when he looked from one to the other he felt a familiar hardness rise up in his chest. The hardness always caused trouble because it meant he was going to go against a god's will, no matter the cost. He hadn't felt like this since the Bad Death-One tried to make him leave the Kind One just after he first found him. He couldn't help the feeling. It would just rise up and sometime it made him fight. But he wasn't going to fight Ruan. He kept his hands open. Kept them at his sides. He turned his head away from the god's startled eyes refusing to listen to their orders. Sometimes when he did this, he got his way, and then the hardness would disappear.
"Well, if you're going to be all that stubborn about it!" Ruan said in
exasperation and hit him on the shoulder. "Come on, then."
Was it over? Had he won? The punch on his shoulder stung a bit, but it wasn't anything like the beating he had expected. But Ruan didn't seem particularly angry and it wasn't like him to hold off punishment for later. The hardness disappeared out of his chest and spirits on the rise again, he swung along happily at Ruan's heels. The Kind One scolded him all the way to the fields but words did not hurt the way a whip could and since the god wasn't going to do anything worse to him he didn't let Ruan's ill-humor disturb him.
Marina was less than a day away from hard Need. Ruan was sitting in his favorite chair, watching his wife restlessly pacing on the other side of the room. Having Dunbren around had kept her calmer than he'd ever seen her at this time of the month. "There is nothing so good as a high-field Gen . . ." What was the rest of that poem? He couldn't remember.
It was late. The girls were in bed in the loft above and Dunbren, as if sensing how close to need Marina was, stayed warily out of her way. He was now sitting on the rug behind Ruan, working with a punch and leather at something of his own devising, his field calm with concentration. Unfortunately Marina's need was reaching the point where Dunbren's presence was more of a torment than a balm. Time to get the Gen behind some shielding. "Dunbren?"
The Gen raised his head, waiting.
"Time for you to go to bed, now."
After a sharp look at Marina, the Gen didn't protest. As the storeroom door closed behind him, Marina visibly relaxed and came over to sit beside Ruan. "I didn't want to make him go. He enjoys staying up with us so much."
"For something as weak as a Gen, we sure spend a lot of time trying to keep him happy."
"He's so much like a child. The longer we keep him the more . . ." She turned haunted brown eyes to him. "Is this why we were told never to take a Gen early? Never to keep one undrugged?"
Ruan didn't answer, afraid any discussion would lead them into looking closely at a question which, if answered, could only destroy them. "I'll bring home your kill, tomorrow."
"What?" She smiled in real amusement. "With that Gen on your heels you are going to a Pen?"
"I'll leave him home."
"Oh no you won't! Whenever you go anywhere without him he's utterly miserable. And when that Gen is unhappy even the dog lays back his ears and howls. No thanks! I can't handle that. I'll go myself." She sighed. "I don't envy you this kill, Ruan. Do you think . . . maybe it would be best if we sold him?"
They were both surprised at his reaction. "You're already fixed on him, Ruan," Marina said in a low voice.
Ruan rubbed his chin. "Last week, already."
"Well, in that case. . . ." She tapped her fingers and tentacle tips on the arms of her chair while she thought, "It would be best if Dunbren did not realize there will be another Gen in the house tomorrow. If he doesn't know about the kill the sudden disappearance of another Gen might upset him." Preoccupied with her need, she got up abruptly and went into their bedroom.
Ruan heard her moving around in there, but remained in his chair. One hand rubbing his forehead he considered Dunbren. It wasn't fair. A Gen was supposed to fear Simes, not love them! He wondered, with a sick feeling in his stomach, what Dunbren was going to feel as he was killing him?
Shivering suddenly with a chill of the spirit rather than of the body, Ruan went into the storeroom and quietly opened the door. Dunbren was a long, blanket wrapped bundle on the floor. He woke, blinking at the sudden light and sleepily raised himself half up on one arm, waiting to see what Ruan wanted. "It's all right," Ruan said. "Good night."
The Gen grunted a response and lay down again.
Ruan walked to the kitchen door and stood on the porch, staring up at the dark, moonless sky. He could not sell Dunbren and he had no more money to buy a different kill. He would not be permitted a free Gen from the Pens, because Nella knew he had this Gen. Even if he did get another kill, where would it end? If he couldn't kill Dunbren this month would another month make it easier? And the taxes . . . he didn't want to think about the taxes. The redhead had been right about everything except one. No matter what happened he would never sell Dunbren back to him.
As he turned around to seek his bed he realized he'd left the storeroom door ajar. Dunbren could run away. Well . . . if he did it might be a blessing. Ruan shrugged and went to bed.
Dunbren was still there in the morning.
Dunbren knew very well why he was kept out of the storeroom the next day. It was rather funny, really, to see how much trouble the Kind-One went to trying to hide it from him and the girl-children. He was anyway, uninterested in the strange Gen in the house. It was Marina's kill. All his life he had lived with the knowledge of the Kill day. Gens died on the Kill day. That's what Gens were for. It's coming did have one good effect other than pulling Marina out of the Madness. The Kind-One let him sleep just outside the door to the room where he and Marina slept.
Working in the fields beside Ruan, Dunbren found himself wondering how the Bad Death-One could have taught him so many ways to make the Kind-One comfortable as his own Kill day approached. It was strange that the Bad Death-One, had had to force Dunbren to do those things he did freely and without hardly thinking about for Ruan Dunbren worried at the notion, but he did not have the words with which to pursue this philosophical thought into deeper waters, and his mind wandered instead to something which never failed to warm him with pleasure.
The Death-Ones rarely talked to Gens and the first day Ruan took him to work in the fields he had been surprised when the Kind-One spoke to him more than just to give orders. He knew Ruan meant for him to understand what he said, because the Kind-One used Slow Speech, like he did when he spoke to the children.
But it was when he realized Ruan had given him his own "call" word that he began to want to be with the Kind-One all the time. He had never had his own call word before and whenever Ruan used it, it gave him a funny feeling in his middle. A nice feeling. As if to Ruan he was more than just a Gen . . .
Dunbren whispered his name aloud with pleasure. It had a fine solid sound to it and he was proud to think his Kind-One had given him such a fine call word.
He was learning other words, too. Slow Speech words. Most likely he would never have tried saying them out loud because they were forbidden to Gens, if it hadn't been for Shonneth insisting he talk to her. He liked Shonneth. She treated him as if he were a real person. But maybe that was because she hadn't grown her tentacles yet.
Beside him Ruan straightened up from hoeing and pushed his light brown hair off his face saying, "I'm thirsty, how about you, Dunbren?"
Dunbren straightened up, shifting his own hoe to his left hand and wiped his face like Ruan had, though he had to use a finger instead of a tentacle, and waited patiently for the order to bring the water.
The week was slipping past too rapidly, Dunbren thought a bit resentfully. It was the last good week. In a few days Ruan would slip deeper into the madness which only the death of a Gen would bring him out of.
The days went by and Dunbren worked conscientiously to keep Ruan calm. For a while he succeeded but as the Kill day grew remorselessly closer the Sime grew more tense and restless and seemed to get worse not better when Dunbren came close. That hurt, because it was the only thing he had to give Ruan in exchange for his name and all the good feelings the Kind One gave him.
Then with only one day to go before the Kill day, Ruan slipped totally beyond Dunbren's reach. It was not the madness come on Ruan a day early, Dunbren decided, but something else, some thought, that seemed to eat at him. Ruan drove him away with blows and yells. For the first time Dunbren learned that words could hurt worse than a whip.
Grieving, the Gen retreated into the yard where he sat on the well curbing and listened while Ruan had a terrible fight with Marina. He winced as dishes crashed. The kitchen door slammed back as Ruan flung out of the house, threw a saddle on a horse and galloped away.
He leaped up ready to follow, but it was hopeless. He took a few steps towards the gate and stopped when Marina called him to come into the house. He helped her clean up the mess in the kitchen and then went to sit disconsolately on the porch steps, staring down the road where Ruan had gone without him. Marina came and gave him a piece of honey cake, but he was so heartsick he couldn't eat the treat and slipped it to the dog. After a while the dog went somewhere and fell asleep. Dunbren didn't notice.
That night when Marina gave him his supper he tasted the dreaming stuff in it. He spat out the mouthful and placed the plate back on the table. He was afraid then that Marina would be angry and force him to eat it anyway, as other Death-Ones had made him eat the dreaming stuff on other occasions.
Those times he had fought. He hated for the world to be fuzzy and distant from him. His shoulders slumped. If Marina insisted he eat the dreaming stuff he would. He didn't want to fight Marina. He waited miserably for her to shout at him, to order him to eat his supper. But to his surprise she sighed and brought him another bowl and a cautious taste told him this had no dreaming stuff in it.
Then he wanted desperately to tell her he did not need to be drugged for Ruan as other Gens were drugged on their kill day. He was glad to do it for Ruan. He knew Ruan could not help himself. He wanted to tell her about all the years of uncertainty and fear and how good it was to know it was all going to end. But he could not tell her these things because a Gen did not have the right to use Slow Speech and she would not listen if he used Gen Talk.
Ruan did not come back that night. Dunbren was not worried he would seek a kill somewhere else. It was Ruan's kill day . . . and he, Dunbren, was to be Ruan's kill.
At dawn Dunbren got up, drank his morning tea standing by the open door, watching the sky as Ruan did each morning. It felt right to do something Ruan did when Ruan wasn't there to do it. Color caught his eye. He stepped out into the yard and studied the flowers growing beside the house. They had a strange
brightness about them that made him stop and touch, looking at them as if he had never seen flowers before. The outlines of trees and grasses had a strange hard clarity. He walked around, smelling, looking, touching. And everything was as if he was seeing it for the first time. He chanced to glance back at the house. Marina was standing on the porch watching him. She seemed to be unhappy about something. She was crying into her apron. He realized then he'd left his morning chores undone. Ruan would not like it if he came back and found the work had not been finished. He laughed to himself, caught up in a strange sense of freedom. What could Ruan do to him if he did not work today? What indeed? Nevertheless he did his work, feeling his muscles moving under his skin. Aware of the weight of the laden pitchfork in his hands, of the various fine odors that came with a barn. He worked carefully, doing everything just right.
Marina sent the girls down to the neighbors for the day. Dunbren saw them go, carrying a heavy picnic basket. At the gate to the lane they turned end waved at him calling goodby. He waved back, a lump in his throat he didn't understand.
It was afternoon when Ruan came back. Dunbren heard the horse come into the farmyard and laying down the harness he was cleaning, went out and took the tired animal from Ruan. Ruan looked tired too, and avoided looking at him as if the sight of his Gen was a painful one.
Dunbren looked at the Kind One's arms, judging the size of the swollen ronaplin glands at the base of the laterals. Ruan was very close to his time, and yet didn't seem interested in his Gen. Dunbren stood looking after Ruan as the Sime made for the kitchen, puzzled. Ruan stopped, turned back, the madness at work in his thin face. But instead of coming for Dunbren as the Gen expected, Ruan made a pushing away motion and crying for Marina, fled into the kitchen as if it and she, offered him some kind of safety. Still puzzling over Ruan's strange behavior Dunbren rubbed the horse down, fed him and cleaned and hung up the tack. He picked up a small bundle he had waiting since morning, tucked it under his arm and walked steadily for the washhouse.
To keep his feet clean he wore his boots back to the house, but removed them on the porch. Inside, he could hear the Kind One talking softly to Marina, his voice sounding frantic and pleading. He put his hand on the door and the voice stilled. He stepped inside. Ruan had his back to him, sitting at the table across from Marina. Ruan stiffened and his hands and tentacles wrapped tightly around the edge of the table as if to keep himself from reaching out to his Gen.
Could it be Ruan was resisting the madness? A great warmth washed through him at the thought that perhaps, the god to whom his life belonged valued him so much he fought the madness in an effort to spare the Gen. It was a doomed attempt, of course. No Sime could resist the madness, but it was still a great gift the Kind One strove to give him. Still in that sense of freedom he'd had all day he reached out a thin brown hand and rested it lightly on the Sime's tense shoulder. He would never have dared do that before. "Is okay, Ruan. Right to do. Not afraid. Tired. Good to sleep." He patted Ruan, as the Sime raised a pale, shocked face and stared at him. Dunbren supposed he should not have spoken, but he didn't want Ruan to feel bad about the Kill day.
The madness cleared out of Ruan's face as it often had with the Bad Death-One, but that meant nothing. The Death-One still had to kill. Ruan said his name in a curiously thick voice, and his shoulders slumped as if there was something he'd stopped fighting.
There was nothing left to be said, so Dunbren walked across to the storeroom door, and opened it. The killroom on the far side of the storeroom was half hidden behind shelves of preserves. He opened the door to the small, insulated killroom, entered, and quietly closed the door behind him.
It was cool and dark inside, featureless except for a collar and chain attached to the wall. Dunbren knelt on the floor. His lip curling slightly, Dunbren pushed the chain to one side. That would not be needed.
The white kill tunic he wore reached only to his knees and it seemed strange to see his bare legs after wearing the pants Ruan had given him.
He knelt facing the door, eyes lowered, empty hands at his sides. It seemed a long time before he heard the quick, light step which had become so familiar over the last weeks. The door opened. Ruan stood there silhouetted dimly against the faint light from the kitchen.
The Death-One went to his own knees in front of him and Dunbren wondered at the shine of tears on the Sime's face. Then Ruan struck. His tentacles wrapped tightly around the Gen's brown arms and yanked Dunbren toward him.
This is the last thing I do for him, I must get it right, Dunbren thought then. And because his only thought was to make Ruan feel good he did what he always did, only harder. He scarcely felt the beginning of fire along his nerves, caught up as he was in his own emotions, trying hard to give Ruan everything he felt for him. He pushed. Something happened. It was as if he fell into a great rosy joyousness made up of his feelings for Ruan and Ruan's feelings for him. He didn't have the words for it.
Then Ruan was pulling away from him and it was ending. In the dark, the Death-One's hands reached for him. "You are still alive!" Hands and tentacles both patted at him, his face, his shoulders, ran down his arms . . . as if Ruan could not believe it. Ruan was on his feet, had thrown open the door and was racing away to Marina shouting, "He's alive! I don't know what happened, but he's alive!"
Left alone in the kill room Dunbren couldn't believe it either. Confused, he touched at his bruised arms. From the kitchen he heard a babble of voices. Ruan's soared with joy; broke into the lilting laughter of reprieve. Dunbren had succeeded in making the Kind One feel good. That made Dunbren feel good, too. But he was also conscious of disappointment. He was still alive.
Dunbren had never heard of a Gen living past the Kill Day. He wondered what would happen now. Sudden fear caught at his throat and he lunged to his feet, turned as if he would run, but there was nowhere to run.
Ruan was calling him. He must go. But not until he put away this fear . . . not until . . . It was too late. Ruan was at the killroom door, laughing, pulling Dunbren after him into the kitchen and even if Ruan's senses were dulled after the kill, Marina's were not. She turned wide brown eyes on him, surprised, as Ruan pulled his Gen across the threshold. Dunbren stopped dead in his tracks. Instinct told him not to move when a Death-One looked at a Gen like that. He stared at the floor, not daring to meet her gaze. He was no Death-One's Kill any more. What would happen to him now without Ruan's protection?
Ruan had stopped laughing, looking anxiously from his Gen to his wife, not understanding. But give him time to understand, Dunbren thought, his heart thumping wildly in his chest. His eyes raised by themselves to fasten onto the Kind One's face. The source of all hope, of all protection, of all kindness.
"Talk to him," Marina said softly, stepping away, into the bedroom and gently closing the door behind her.
Ruan was looking intently into Dunbren's face, but wisely did not try to touch him. He walked away to his chair and settled into it. "Come here."
Dunbren sighed faintly. Now it comes. He knelt beside Ruan, their eyes almost level. His Kind One touched him gently. "Tell me what you fear."
So, Ruan still did not understand and it was one of the hardest things ever asked of him to voice his terrible fear. Too late, Dunbren realized the merits of not being able to speak.
Suddenly Dunbren was shaking and could not stop himself. Unexpectedly, Ruan's arm went around his shoulders, holding him tightly. He pressed his face into the Kind One's thigh, feeling the rough material against his skin. "Gens do not stay after the Kill. Not ever. You will sell me . . . to . . . to HIM. HE said so when you bought me."
The arm around his shoulders tightened painfully. "I am NOT going to sell you. Even if I were, I would NEVER sell you back to HIM. I'd sooner let you go to a Householding."
"Not?" It was muffled against Ruan's leg, but they both heard the quaver of dawning hope in that single syllable.
"Not," Ruan repeated firmly.
Dunbren took a deep breath and the shivering stopped. Ruan slightly loosened his painful hold. "Did the Kill all wrong," Dunbren muttered guiltily, his face still pressed against Ruan's leg.
Ruan's hand smoothed the silky strands of Dunbren's dark hair. "I think, perhaps, you are the first to do it right."
- end -